3 December, 2010: Michael Whapham: Franklin Art Glass Studios
Columbus, Ohio. I head down to German Village, one of the oldest districts in downtown Columbus. Everything in this neighborhood is vintage and built with brick – from the storefronts to the townhomes to the streets themselves, narrow avenues a challenge to negotiate with their wavy and rippled surfaces. There is an undeniable charm to this area. I can’t think of many neighborhoods so committed to preservation. It would be easy to fill potholes with asphalt, or even pave the streets like other cities have done; instead, the imperfections of aging masonry is embraced and expresses the identity of this unique place.
It’s fitting, then, that Franklin Art Glass Studios would call German Village home. With a legacy of stained glass design and production dating back to 1924, four generations of the Helf family has guided the business through the modern age of industrialization and into the 21st century, all while upholding the ethic of handwork in favor of computer-aided design. It is this approach to craft that has attracted me to Franklin Art Glass, and it is their master designer/painter that I want to meet.
Vice President Andrea (Helf) Reid is the heir apparent to the business, and she meets me this morning in the lobby/showroom of the building. Since her father Gary (CEO) has taken Grandfather James (retired) to winter in Florida, she is minding the shop. After a brief conversation, she leads me into the back of a vast production facility, past an array of stained glass windows, doors, and lamps, and shelf upon shelf of uncut colored and textured glass and rolls of plans. Halfway back, in an old studio bathed in diffuse, natural daylight, she introduces me to a middle-aged, mustached gentleman who is at work organizing cut pieces of green and yellow glass. This is Michael Whapham, stained glass painter and designer. He is assembling a modest project of his own creation: a memorial commissioned by the widows of a pair of pear farmers. He confesses his discomfort with being the object of my attention, and I assure him that I’m more of a ‘behind-the-scenes guy’ myself. I promise that there will be no photos until after a tour and my understanding of his process.
Over the next three hours I get that tour, as well as a rundown on the company’s history. The building is itself a fascinating place, dusty and vast. It is a kind of museum, less for the random examples of old work encountered here and there and more for the trove of drawings which exists as a reminder of 86 years of the company’s history. Considering the volume of custom work that Franklin Art Glass currently produces with 24 employees (in retail, design, production, shipping, etc.), it’s staggering to consider the body of one-of-a-kind work they’ve produced not only for churches, but for non-secular clients like Wendy’s corporation. (In the seventies, Franklin Art Glass maintained an entire department devoted to a production run of stained glass lamps for the Columbus fast food chain.) With businesses keen on their bottom lines and production costs so low in China, the majority of today’s work is devoted not to corporate America, but to the private sector and individual pieces for construction and renovation … and to churches, of course. There also exists a niche market for do-it-yourself stained glass and leading, which Franklin Art Glass promotes and supplies via retail and mail order sales and in-house classes. Time and reputation has served the company well; they are the largest employer in their trade, and they are highly regarded. As I meet the crew, I begin to understand why.
Michael started with Franklin Art Glass in 1974, after a tour of duty in Vietnam followed by a couple of years of commercial art classes at Ohio State University. He was hired by second generation James Helf as a glass cutter and leader, where leading is the process of adhering cut pieces of glass to one another with metal channel and solder. In time he was taken under the wing of Helf’s partner and designer, German ex-pat Wilhelm Kielbock, where he learned the specialized skill of painting glass. His first assist at painting was on a masterwork of Mr. Kielbock’s: A four-lancet piece for the Trinity Episcopal Church downtown, featuring thematic elements of cultural and civic sites depicting Central Ohio.
Specifically known as ‘the Munich style,’ the process involves various stages of applying hand-mulled inks and dyes, applied and altered with tools like conventional paint brushes, quills, and ‘badger blender’ brushes. In between each application and alteration of ink (applied on the front) and dye (applied on the back) to the colored glass, the glass is fired in a one-of-a-kind kiln built in the 1920’s by the late Elmore Helf and his founding partners.
The kiln really grabs me. With its simplicity and obvious attention to structural integrity, it exudes a lost quality. I am surprised to learn that the thing doesn’t have a bottom, but relies on the sliding tray one puts the glass onto to act as a firing base. Michael tells me that this old thing bakes glass in a quarter of the time it takes a contemporary kiln to do the same work. And it has been trouble-free from the outset, its patina a telling detail of this history. Since nothing on the kiln has ever needed service or replacement, it is only the regulator handle that shows any wear. The polished brass of the handle is an anomaly.
By illustrating the glass in Michael’s way, a detailed figure can be created which lends a striking aspect to the more conventional stained glass mosaic. As he shows me photo album after photo album of past jobs and full scale illustrative drawings of designs, I realize just how diverse his talent and background has to be: If a secular project calls for a Byzantine look or an Ecclesiastical one, or perhaps one of a modern expression, Michael’s execution has to express it with authenticity. Being that each design is an original, it is particularly impressive that Michael can conceive, design, illustrate, and then paint in layers the small bits that will eventually comprise massive compositions … all on unforgiving glass.
I had presumed my visit to Franklin Art Glass would be more about the craft of assembling continuous tone glass in a matrix of metal, and the process of layout from which that production originates. Instead, I am taken by the skill demanded by elaborate design and complex painting in a tricky medium. Over lunch, and away from the distractions of the work he’d keep describing unless pried from his studio, I ask Michael if he’d always been an ‘illustrator type’ or if he’d grown into it. Reluctant, he betrays the hint of a smile: “I’ve always worked at it. I’m still not quite there.”
Exhibiting an attention to minutiae that transcends detail, his work is synonymous with care. With the resolute passion he brings to each job it is evident that Michael is a man of convictions, though he never responds to my inquiries on such lofty themes. By the end of our day, as witness to his reverence for not merely the product but for the thoughtful process of his creation, I venture that this studio is Mike’s church, and the craft is his expression of devotion. “It makes no sense to create something that has no feeling. I’m more inclined to spend my own free time making something right than to hand in a job that might be pretty, but isn’t honest.”